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MARK D. ALICKE
Ohio State University
Most people are average but few people believe it. e tendency to
evaluate oneself more favorably than an average peer is one of social
psychology’s chestnuts—a ﬁ nding that will never let you down when
running a class demonstration. is better-than-average eﬀ ect has been obtained
in numerous studies, with diverse populations, on multiple dimensions, and with
various measurements techniques.
e better-than-average eﬀ ect is a particular type of social comparison, one in
which people compare their characteristics or behaviors against a norm or standard,
which is usually the average standing of their peers on the characteristic. In this
regard, the better-than-average eﬀ ect falls outside the mainstream of traditional
social comparison theory. Following Festinger (1954), social comparison theorists
have emphasized the precursors and consequences of comparisons between people.
Arguably, however, comparisons with normative standards are at least as prevalent
as interpersonal comparisons. e self versus average peer judgments studied in
better-than-average eﬀ ect research are akin to social comparisons such as assessing
whether one is meeting a group’s moral standards or performance expectations.
e better-than-average eﬀ ect is considered to be one of the most robust of
all self-enhancement phenomena (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Sedikides & Gregg,
2003). e better-than-average eﬀ ect shares this distinction with the optimistic
bias—the tendency to overestimate one’s chances of good fortune and to under-
estimate one’s risk for misfortune. Whereas the better-than-average eﬀ ect pertains
to self versus average peer comparisons on behavior and trait dimensions, the
optimistic bias involves comparisons about life events such as winning the lottery
or getting divorced. Although we concentrate on the better-than-average eﬀ ect in
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86 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
this chapter, many of the issues underlying better-than-average judgments apply
as well to relative risk assessments. Connections and distinctions between these
two research areas will be drawn throughout this chapter.
Various explanations have been proposed for the better-than-average eﬀ ect (see
Gilovich, Epley, & Hanko, this volume). ese explanations encompass two broad
issues. e ﬁ rst issue concerns the role of behavioral and interpersonal comparisons
in the better-than-average eﬀ ect . One prominent explanation for the eﬀ ect is that
when asked to compare themselves with an average peer, people select comparison
targets who fare especially poorly on the judgment dimension (Perloﬀ & Fetzer,
1986). Another possibility is that people think selectively about behaviors on
which they fare better than others (Weinstein, 1980). In contrast to these views,
Alicke et al. (2001) have argued that behavioral comparisons are unnecessary to
account for the eﬀ ect, and that people routinely employ a “better-than-average”
heuristic which entails a compromise between existing self-knowledge and ideal
A second main issue underlying better-than-average explanations is whether
nonmotivational mechanisms can account for the eﬀ ect. e four most promi-
nent nonmotivational explanations center on whether people selectively recruit
information or comparison targets that ensure their own superiority, whether the
judgment task encourages people to focus on themselves rather than on the average
peer (focalism), whether people’s own behaviors or characteristics are considered
more thoroughly and weighted more heavily (egocentrism), and whether the
eﬀ ect is due to diﬀ erences between comparing a single entity (the self ) with an
aggregate (an average peer).
To anticipate our conclusion, we do not believe that nonmotivational mecha-
nisms account suﬃ ciently for the better-than-average eﬀ ect, and we also believe
that various lines of evidence indicate that self-enhancement motives contribute
to the eﬀ ect. Furthermore, many of the nonmotivational explanations that have
been discussed are as readily interpretable in motivational terms. e fact that
people concentrate unduly on their own characteristics in making comparisons
(egocentrism), for example, could result from the tendency to believe that their
own characteristics are better or more important than others’. At the same time,
we hardly wish to argue that nonmotivational mechanisms are unimportant in
explaining the better-than-average eﬀ ect. Any satisfactory explanation of self-
related eﬀ ects must encompass both the why and the how of behavior. To argue
that the better-than-average eﬀ ect occurs because people wish to view themselves
positively tells us nothing about how the eﬀ ect occurs. erefore, after a brief
historical survey of the emergence of better-than-average eﬀ ect research, and a
consideration of factors that moderate the eﬀ ect, we discuss the mechanisms that
contribute to the better-than-average eﬀ ect. After this, we review evidence that
points to the role of self-enhancement motives in this research area and discuss
avenues for future research.
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
Data collected in conjunction with the 1976 College Board Exams provide one
of the earliest, most striking, and most frequently-cited demonstrations of the
better-than-average eﬀ ect. Of the approximately one million students who took
the SAT that year, 70% placed themselves above the median in leadership abil-
ity, 60% above the median in athletic ability, and 85% rated themselves above
the median in their ability to get along well with others. Amazingly, 25% of the
students rated themselves in the 1st percentile on this latter characteristic. ese
data are noteworthy because in contrast to many subsequent better-than-average
and optimistic bias studies, students were not asked to compare themselves to an
average peer but simply to indicate where they stood in relation to the median.
us, these results cannot be ascribed to negative connotations associated with
the word “average.”
Around this time, Cross (1977) distributed a questionnaire to instructors at
three branches of the University of Nebraska. is questionnaire was concerned
primarily with undergraduate teaching issues, but included a question that asked
professors to rate their teaching abilities. Results showed that 94% of the faculty
considered themselves above average in teaching ability and 68% placed their
teaching abilities in the top 25%. ese data demonstrated at the outset that the
better-than-average eﬀ ect was not limited to college students.
Another frequently-cited study by Svenson (1981) showed that 88% of
American college students, and 77% of Swedish college students, considered
themselves to be above the 50th percentile on driving safety. Svenson’s research
was motivated by an earlier study in which Preston and Harris (1965) compared
50 drivers who had been hospitalized following car accidents (34 of whom had
caused the accidents, according to police records) with 50 matched drivers without
accident histories. Preston and Harris’s results showed not only that both groups
considered themselves to be above average in driving skills, but that the accident
group’s evaluation of their driving abilities did not diﬀ er from those who were
uninvolved in accidents.
e ﬁ rst experimental research on the better-than-average eﬀ ect was con-
ducted in France where Codol (1975) studied what he called the “superior con-
formity of the self.” Codol placed his research in the context of identifying with
desirable norms. e hypothesis guiding these studies was that people believed they
adhered to desirable norms more than others. Codol employed various self versus
other measurements in his twenty studies, and so this research did not establish a
basic paradigm for subsequent investigations. Furthermore, the context of norm
identiﬁ cation obscured somewhat the general, social-comparative implications
of the better-than-average eﬀ ect. Nevertheless, Codol presciently raised issues
that still resound in the better-than-average eﬀ ect literature. His ﬁ ndings suggest,
for example, that the better-than-average eﬀ ect is larger when people compare
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88 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
themselves to others in general than to speciﬁ c group members. Codol also con-
jectured that the tendency to view oneself as superior to others represents a desire
to self-enhance rather than to denigrate others.
Self researchers recognize that people are not indiscriminately self-serving (e.g.,
Baumeister, 1998; Schlenker, 1980; Sedikides & Gregg, 2003). Self-serving
tendencies such as the better-than-average eﬀ ect are pervasive but not inevitable.
As previously noted, even the earliest better-than-average eﬀ ect studies assessed
moderating factors that alter the eﬀ ect’s strength. Four main classes of moderat-
ing factors have been identiﬁ ed: the scales on which the eﬀ ect is measured, the
nature of the judgment dimension, the nature of the comparison target, and
characteristics of the judge.
Direct and Indirect Measurements
Research on the optimistic bias and better-than-average eﬀ ect employs two basic
methodologies. With the direct method, self is compared to an average peer on a
single scale that uses “average” as the midpoint. At the low end, direct scales are
usually anchored with wording such as “considerably below average” and on the
high end at “considerably above average.” e estimate of the better-than-average
eﬀ ect is straightforward: e higher the number circled, the greater the magni-
tude of the eﬀ ect. With indirect ratings, participants rate the self and average
peer on separate scales. e better-than-average eﬀ ect is calculated by subtracting
the average rating from the self rating so that higher scores indicate greater bias.
Studies suggest that people are more self-serving when they use the direct rather
than the indirect scale (Otten & van der Pligt, 1996). Direct scales provide a
stronger comparative frame and may, therefore, elicit more pronounced tenden-
cies to contrast the self upward from the average peer or to contrast the average
peer downward from the self.
e direct method of assessing the better-than-average eﬀ ect is used more
often, although it is less informative. With the direct method, it is impossible to
estimate whether the better-than-average eﬀ ect results from people underestimating
the average peer’s standing, overestimating their own standing, or both. e one
exception to this occurs when a person’s standing on a dimension is objectively
known and can be used as a reference point (Epley & Dunning, 2000). e in-
direct method, by contrast, is informative of the direction of contrast. Because
the indirect method has been less frequently used, there is no solid basis yet for
concluding whether the better-than-average eﬀ ect represents self-inﬂ ation, average
peer deﬂ ation, or some combination of both.
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
The Nature of the Judgment Dimension
People who claim positive characteristics that are easily refuted risk being ridiculed.
Furthermore, the need to maintain coherent and believable self-images (Swann,
Rentfrow, & Guinn, 2003) is threatened when people cling tenaciously to dubi-
ous abilities and characteristics. Self-serving tendencies, therefore, operate within
reality bounds. As a general rule, we assume that people are most self-serving when
they have the latitude to interpret events in a self-serving manner (Sedikides &
Strube, 1997). Self-enhancement is accomplished with the least obvious distortion
when the judgment dimension is subjective or abstract as opposed to objective or
concrete. Self-enhancement is also facilitated when people believe they have the
ability to alter their standing on the dimension. Each of these factors is discussed
Criteria for Assessing Traits
e criteria for assessing intellectual and physical abilities are generally more
objective than those for evaluating social or moral ones (Reeder & Brewer, 1979;
Rothbart & Park, 1986). e view that people are more self-serving when making
subjective or ambiguous judgments than objective ones leads to the prediction
that the better-than-average eﬀ ect will be larger on ability than on social or moral
is expectation has been conﬁ rmed by Allison, Messick and Goethals (1989)
who found that the tendency for people to believe that they performed more
moral behaviors than their peers was greater than their tendency to believe they
performed more intellectual behaviors, although the latter was still signiﬁ cant.
Allison et al. termed this the “Muhammed Ali eﬀ ect.”
e ubiquitous Muhammed Ali also provides a ﬁ tting introduction to Dun-
ning, Meyerowitz, and Holzberg’s (1989) demonstration that ambiguity moder-
ates the better-than-average eﬀ ect. In an interview with Muhammed Ali after
winning an early ﬁ ght, sportscaster Howard Cosell suggested that Ali was mighty
“truculent” that evening, to which Ali replied: “I don’t know what truculent is,
but if it’s good, I’m it.” Dunning et al. captured something like this reasoning
in a more formal and less truculent manner. eir ﬁ rst two studies showed that
the better-than-average eﬀ ect was greater on dimensions that had been preclas-
siﬁ ed as ambiguous versus unambiguous. In the third study, trait ambiguity was
manipulated by presenting some participants with speciﬁ c criteria for assessing a
trait, whereas others were free to deﬁ ne the traits for themselves. Results generally
showed that the better-than-average eﬀ ect was larger when participants provided
their own trait deﬁ nitions, although this eﬀ ect was more consistent for positive
than for negative trait dimensions.
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90 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
In addition to having the latitude to interpret a trait’s meaning, self-enhancement
is facilitated when people can construe their standing on a trait in a self-serving
manner. Positive characteristics that people believe they control have greater self-
serving value than characteristics they believe are less alterable, whereas negative
uncontrollable characteristics are less deﬂ ating than controllable ones.
e ﬁ rst large-scale, systematic study of the better-than-average eﬀ ect assessed
the moderating inﬂ uence of a trait characteristic’s perceived controllability. Partici-
pants in this study examined self versus average ratings on separate scales for 171
trait dimensions (Alicke, 1985). ese traits were prerated to represent four levels
of desirability (high, moderately-high, moderately low, and low) and two levels
of controllability (high and low). e larger set of desirability than controllability
categories reﬂ ects the greater range in desirability preratings.
Although we assumed that people would evaluate themselves more favorably
than they would an average peer, we expected this tendency to be moderated by
controllability. e primary prediction was that participants would believe them-
selves to be characterized more by positive controllable than positive uncontrollable
traits in relation to the average college student, and more by negative uncontrol-
lable than negative controllable traits. ese predictions can be summarized in
the phrase: “I make me good, fate makes me bad.”
As we anticipated, the tendency to evaluate oneself more favorably than
the average college student on positive traits, and less unfavorably on negative
traits, was pervasive. e predicted eﬀ ects of controllability were also obtained
such that participants rated themselves more favorably in relation to the average
college student on positive controllable traits and more unfavorably on negative
The Nature of the Comparison Target
A fundamental question surrounding better-than-average eﬀ ect judgments con-
cerns the nature of the comparison target. Whereas traditional social comparison
studies include comparisons between individuals, better-than-average eﬀ ect
research entails comparisons between oneself and an hypothetical or statistical
entity, namely, an average peer. Extensive attributional and decision-making
research shows that people tend to deemphasize or misuse statistical information
(Nisbett & Ross, 1980). e better-than-average eﬀ ect, therefore, might disap-
pear when comparisons are eﬀ ected between real people rather than between a
person and a statistic.
Alicke et al. (1985) conducted a series of studies to see if the better-than-
average eﬀ ect would be eliminated when people compared themselves to a real
person rather than an average peer. In their ﬁ rst and simplest study, half the
participants were brought to a large room and asked to look at the person sit-
ting next to them. ese participants then changed their seats and made 40 trait
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
comparisons (20 positive, 20 negative) between themselves and the person they
had sat next to. A second group of participants compared themselves on these
same dimensions to the average college student. Results showed that the better-
than-average eﬀ ect was pervasive in both groups, but was signiﬁ cantly reduced in
comparisons with real people.
is ﬁ rst study suggested that people adjust their evaluations when comparing
with real versus hypothetical targets, but still view themselves more favorably in
person-to-person comparisons. Six more studies were conducted to investigate in
greater detail the diﬀ erences between real and hypothetical comparison targets.
ese studies used a common paradigm in which an interviewer asked a series of
predetermined questions of an interviewee (actually a confederate) who always
gave the same stock answers. In the ﬁ rst study using this paradigm, a live observer
watched the interaction in the same room, another group watched the interaction
on videotape, a third read a written transcript of the interview, and a fourth made
self versus average college student judgments. Ratings in the ﬁ rst study were made
on the kinds of life events studied in optimistic bias research. Consistent with the
ﬁ rst study’s ﬁ ndings, the better-than-average eﬀ ect (or optimistic bias in this case)
was greater when participants compared themselves to the average college student
than in any of the other conditions. e more novel ﬁ nding of this study was that
the better-than-average eﬀ ect was greater in the transcript and video conditions
than in the live observer or interviewer conditions. No diﬀ erences were obtained
between the live observer and interviewer conditions, suggesting that actual
interaction with the target does not inﬂ uence comparisons beyond experiencing
the target’s live presence.
is study, therefore, established two diﬀ erences between real and hypotheti-
cal comparison targets. e ﬁ rst diﬀ erence is individuation. Any speciﬁ c target
ostensibly reduces the better-than-average eﬀ ect in relation to comparisons with an
hypothetical entity such as an average peer. e second diﬀ erence is live contact.
e better-than-average eﬀ ect is reduced when people are in the same room with
the comparison target regardless of whether an actual interaction takes place.
Subsequent studies sought further reﬁ nements. Participants in the individu-
ation condition of the previous study received some information from the target
in the form of the target’s answers to the interview questions. To create even more
basic individuation conditions, participants in one group saw only a still image
of the target, and in another, saw only the back of the target’s head (to eliminate
facial cues). We also created conditions in which participants thought they were
watching a contemporaneous interview on a TV monitor, and conditions in
which participants watched the interview from behind a one-way mirror with
the belief that the interviewee could, or could not, see them. In the mirror condi-
tions, participants stood almost the exact distance from the interviewee as in the
live observer condition, and also saw the interviewee from the same angle. e
results were clear: Every condition in which participants compared themselves
to the interviewee produced a decreased better-than-average eﬀ ect in relation to
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92 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
comparisons with an average college student, and an increased better-than-average
eﬀ ect in relation to live observer conditions.
ese ﬁ ndings suggest that individuation per se reduces the better than aver-
age eﬀ ect. e results of these studies also show that the features that diﬀ erentiate
live- from nonlive contact are quite subtle. Live contact did not increase feelings
of similarity to the interviewee, nor did it require any type of interaction. Simply
being in the same room with the target was suﬃ cient to reduce the better-than-
average eﬀ ect, and this same reduction did not occur when participants believed
they were watching the interaction live on a monitor, or even when they watched
the interview through a mirror in the next room and knew that the interviewee
could see them.
Another issue these studies investigated was whether participants perceived
the “average” student pejoratively. One possible explanation for better-than-average
eﬀ ect ﬁ ndings is that people do not want to be considered average because of its
negative connotation. To assess how participants viewed the average student, we
had them create distributions for 16 diﬀ erent trait dimensions. For example, for
the trait dimension dependable-undependable, participants listed the percentage
of people they thought fell into nine categories between extremely dependable
and extremely undependable, with the understanding that their percentages
should total to 100%. e mean of each trait dimension was calculated, and this
value was compared to where on the dimension participants placed themselves,
the average college student, or a real person whom they had sat next to. As in
the previous studies, participants evaluated themselves and the real person more
favorably than the average college student, while consistently placing themselves
above the real person. More germane for the purposes of this study, participants
consistently placed the average college student above the distribution mean. In
these data, therefore, the average college student was not viewed pejoratively, at
least not in relation to the distribution mean. ese ﬁ ndings suggest that even the
average college student is perceived as a more individuated entity than the mean
of a trait distribution.
Characteristics of the Judge
Relatively few better-than-average eﬀ ect studies have examined individual dif-
ference factors. e one factor that has been routinely analyzed–gender–rarely
produces signiﬁ cant eﬀ ects. In this section, we brieﬂ y review the two characteristics
that have received some attention, namely self-esteem and depression.
Not everyone believes they exceed the average by the same degree. Self-esteem is
perhaps the ﬁ rst individual diﬀ erence factor that comes to mind in considering
variations in the better-than-average eﬀ ect. In fact, self-esteem did come to mind
very early in research on this topic. Brown (1986) found that the tendency to
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
evaluate oneself more favorably than others was greater for high self-esteem than
for low self-esteem participants, although this eﬀ ect was obtained for positive and
not for negative traits.
More recently, Suls, Lemos, and Stewart (2002, Study 1) assessed the self
versus average peer comparisons of high and low self-esteem participants on traits
varying in ambiguity. ey found that whereas both high and low self-esteem
individuals exhibited a greater better-than-average eﬀ ect for ambiguous versus
unambiguous traits on positive trait dimensions, low self-esteem individuals did
not show this ambiguity eﬀ ect on negative trait dimensions. us, only high
self-esteem individuals took advantage of the interpretational latitude aﬀ orded
by negative, ambiguous traits.
Tabachnik, Alloy, and Crocker (1983) compared the self versus average peer judg-
ments made by students who scored relatively high or low on the Beck Depression
Inventory. eir main hypothesis was that those who scored higher would view
themselves as more similar to the average college student on depression-relevant
items but not on irrelevant items. As it turned out, depressive participants viewed
themselves as more similar to average on both depression-relevant and depression-
irrelevant items. Because the depression-relevant items were all negative, and the
depression-irrelevant items were predominantly positive, these ﬁ ndings suggest that
depressives exhibit a diminished better-than-average eﬀ ect across the board. In other
words, depressives have a reduced tendency to evaluate themselves less negatively on
negative characteristics relative to the average student as well as a reduced tendency
to evaluate themselves more positively on positive characteristics.
EXPLAINING THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
Five primary mechanisms have been proposed to explain how the better-than-aver-
age eﬀ ect operates. One prevalent idea is that people selectively recruit downward
targets who make them look favorable by comparison, or relatedly, that they
selectively recruit behavioral evidence that favors the self. A second prominent
explanation is that people focus egocentrically on their own positive attributes and
that the heightened availability of their own behaviors and propensities produces
the better-than-average eﬀ ect. ird, focusing explanations argue that the position
of the self as the subject of judgment and the average person as the target produces
the better-than-average eﬀ ect. By this reasoning, reversing the position of subject
and target should eradicate the eﬀ ect. Fourth, the self versus aggregate position
argues that individual entities, such as the self, are evaluated more favorably than
group or aggregate estimates, such as an average peer. Finally, the better-than-
average eﬀ ect could be a heuristic that is applied automatically in social judgments
and then modiﬁ ed for speciﬁ c comparison targets or dimensions. Each of these
explanations is discussed in turn below.
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94 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
Most explanations of the optimistic bias, and some of the better-than-average
eﬀ ect, involve the way people think about their characteristics in relation to
others. In his early optimistic bias research, Weinstein (1980, 1984; Weinstein &
Lachendro, 1982) proposed the most prevalent variant of this explanation, namely,
that when people compare their characteristics to others, they think selectively
about their own strengths or about others’ weaknesses. Weinstein ﬁ rst tested the
selective recruitment hypothesis in a study (1980, Study 2) in which participants
listed behaviors that increased or decreased their chances of experiencing each of
a series of life events. Some participants were then given the opportunity to read
others’ lists. Results showed a reduced optimistic bias in participants who read
others’ lists versus those who did not have access to this information. Importantly,
access to other people’s responses reduced, but did not eliminate, the optimistic
bias. Weinstein and his colleagues showed similar reductions in the optimistic bias
in studies that provided participants with speciﬁ c information about others’ risks
for misfortune (Weinstein, 1984; Weinstein & Lachendro, 1982).
Perﬂ oﬀ and Fetzer (1986) considered another aspect of the selective recruit-
ment hypothesis, namely, that when asked to compare themselves with an average
peer, people select targets who compare unfavorably on the judgment dimension.
People may think, for example, of an especially dishonest person, which casts
their own honest behaviors in an especially favorable light. To test this downward
comparison idea, Perloﬀ and Fetzer had participants compare their vulnerabilities
to misfortune with those of their closest friend, a close friend, and the average
college student. Perloﬀ and Fetzer assumed that identifying a speciﬁ c, well-known
comparison target (i.e., their closest friend) would prevent participants from se-
lecting a target who was worse oﬀ than themselves on the comparison dimension
or from recruiting speciﬁ c behaviors or characteristics on which they fare better.
Consistent with this assumption, they found that what they called “the illusion
of invulnerability” was reduced when people compared themselves to their clos-
est friend, relative to when they compared with a close friend or with an average
As Perloﬀ and Fetzer noted, however, there are competing explanations for
these ﬁ ndings. e explanation they favored was that people possess more infor-
mation about their closest friends, which enables them to conclude that these
friends are no more susceptible to misfortune than themselves. Another plausible
explanation, however, is that people like their closest friend more than a close
friend or an average peer and evaluate their closest friend more favorably on this
basis. ese studies, therefore, provide less clear evidence about the moderating
role of behavioral information than Weinstein and his colleagues’ research (1980
1984; Weinstein & Lachendro, 1982). What Perloﬀ and Fetzer’s results do suggest
is that the better-than-average eﬀ ect is reduced when positive self-evaluations are
extended to others, such as close friends.
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
Egocentrism is the probably the most prevalent nonmotivational explanation
for better-than-average and optimistic bias eﬀ ects. Egocentrism as applied to the
better-than-average eﬀ ect is the tendency to place undue weight on one’s own
characteristics, beliefs and experiences in making self versus average comparisons.
In contrast to the selective recruitment hypothesis, egocentrism does not necessarily
entail a self-serving review of behavioral evidence. In judging their relative honesty,
for example, people may consider the same honest behaviors for themselves and
the target but still place greater weight on their own honest behavior. Furthermore,
selective recruitment can entail thinking about the other’s negative characteristics
without focusing unduly on one’s own.
One source of support for the egocentrism view comes from studies show-
ing that self versus average peer comparisons are predicted better by absolute self
ratings (that is, self ratings alone, without ratings of the average) than by absolute
peer ratings (that is, peer ratings alone, without ratings of the self). Klar and
Giladi (1999), for example, had participants make absolute ratings of their own
contentment, absolute ratings of their peers’ contentment, and also comparative
ratings of their own contentment relative to their peers. e main ﬁ nding in their
two studies was that absolute self-ratings predicted the comparative contentment
ratings better than did absolute peer ratings. In fact, the relationship between
absolute peer ratings and the comparative ratings were low and nonsigniﬁ cant in
both studies. Although these studies examined only one trait dimension, other
studies have obtained analogous results with diﬀ erent judgment tasks (e.g., Eiser,
Pahl, & Prins, 2001; Chambers, Windshitl, & Suls, 2003).
One of the most compelling demonstrations of the egocentrism position
is Kruger’s (1999) ﬁ nding that people consider themselves worse than average
on diﬃ cult tasks. Kruger reasoned that if concentrating egocentrically on their
positive attributes leads people to think that they are better than average, then
concentrating on their negative attributes should lead them to believe that they
are worse than average. is prediction can also be viewed from an anchoring and
adjustment perspective: In the case of tasks for which people believe that they
have high ability, anchoring on their own characteristics should lead to relatively
extreme positive self-judgments, with insuﬃ cient upward adjustments for their
peers, whereas for tasks on which people believe that they have low ability, anchor-
ing should produce extreme negative self-judgments, with insuﬃ cient downward
adjustments for their peers.
Based on pretesting, Kruger classiﬁ ed activities as easy (e.g., driving, using
a mouse) or diﬃ cult (telling jokes, juggling) and then had participants estimate
their percentile ranking for each of the activities. In accord with the egocentrism
position, participants consistently placed themselves above the 50th percentile for
easy activities, and below the 50th percentile for diﬃ cult ones. ese ﬁ ndings are
consistent, therefore, with the assumption that people concentrate egocentrically
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96 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
on their own attributes in comparative judgments and that emphasis on their
negative characteristics leads them to overestimate their shortcomings.
e tendency to concentrate egocentrically on personal prospects and charac-
teristics has important implications for self-other comparisons. In general, if people
think egocentrically about their own prospects, then factors that increase their
chances of success at the task should induce overconﬁ dence about their prospects
(because people focus egocentrically on their own advantage without realizing
others have the same advantage), whereas factors that augur equally unfavorably
for themselves and others should lead to pessimistic predictions. Chambers,
Windschitl, and Suls (2003) tested this hypothesis by asking participants to predict
the likelihood that they versus an average peer would purchase their dream home
within a short time frame (next 6 years) or a long one (next 32 years). Because the
probability is higher that the event will occur in the longer time frame, egocentrism
predicts that people will be overly optimistic about their chances in the long than
in the short time frame. e results conﬁ rmed this prediction.
Focalism is the tendency to place greater weight on whatever hypothesis or outcome
is currently the focus of attention (Schkade & Kahneman, 1998). In contrast to
egocentrism, which explicitly involves self-reference, focalism involves concentrat-
ing on an object due to the way a judgment task is structured. By asking people
to compare their characteristics to those of an average peer, studies on the better-
than-average eﬀ ect tend to place the self in the focal position and the average peer
in the referent position. Because self-representations contain a greater number
of unique qualities than other representations (Karylowski, 1990; Karylowski &
Skarzynaka, 1992), focusing on the self highlights these unique features and leads
people to perceive themselves as less similar to the average.
By making the self the focal object, therefore, the better-than-average eﬀ ect
methodology increases the perceived diﬀ erences between self and other. According
to this reasoning, when people compare the average other to themselves, these
diﬀ erences should be attenuated. In other words, if the positions of self and aver-
age are switched, such that the average peer is made the focal object and the self
is made the referent, the better-than-average eﬀ ect should be reversed or at least
e main support for this focalism prediction comes from studies using the
optimistic bias paradigm. Otten and van der Pligt (1996) and Eiser, Pahl, and
Prins (2001) both manipulated whether participants were asked to estimate how
they would fare relative to their peers on various life events (self-other focus), or
how their peers would fare relative to themselves (other-self focus). ese studies
showed a reduced optimistic bias in the latter condition, that is, when the average
peer was the focal object and the self was the referent.
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
Other studies have compared focalism and egocentrism predictions, although
not with average peer comparisons. In two similar lines of research, Windschitl,
Kruger, and Simms (2003) and Moore and Kim (2003) placed participants in a
competitive situation and asked them to estimate their chances of success. ese
studies assessed egocentrism by varying whether participants believed the task
facilitated or discouraged success (e.g., playing an easy or hard trivia game). Be-
cause the task was equally diﬃ cult for themselves and their opponent, there was
no rational reason for them to alter their estimates based on this information. But
from the egocentrism standpoint, concentrating disproportionately on one’s own
prospects should lead to overestimation in the case of an easy task and underes-
timation in the case of a diﬃ cult one, which is what these studies demonstrated.
Focalism was independently manipulated by asking participants to estimate their
own or their opponent’s chances of winning. Although the results varied some-
what across experiments, both focalism and egocentrism inﬂ uenced participants’
estimates of success.
Self Versus Aggregate Comparisons
In the better-than-average and optimistic bias paradigms, a single entity, the self,
is compared to an aggregate, the average peer. e fact that the self is routinely
evaluated more favorably than average is generally believed to manifest self-es-
teem enhancement. However, Klar and Giladi’s demonstration of “non-selective
superiority and inferiority” biases (Klar, 2002; Klar & Giladi, 2002) calls into
question whether self-enhancement assumptions are needed to explain the better-
than- average eﬀ ect. What Klar and Giladi have demonstrated in numerous experi-
ments is that any member of a positively-evaluated group is rated more favorably
than the group average (Klar, 2000; Klar & Giladi, 1997). Randomly-selected
students at one’s university, for example, are evaluated more favorably than the
average student at the university. is ﬁ nding obtains even when comparing an
individual group member to other distinct individuals, such as comparing a single
police oﬃ cer to the average of other police oﬃ cers in the room. Giladi and Klar
(2002) have demonstrated this same eﬀ ect with impersonal comparisons, such as
soap fragrances and musical selections.
Klar and Giladi’s (1997, 2002) ﬁ ndings suggest that the greater positivity
people claim for themselves may be subsumed by a more general tendency to place
greater weight on single entities than on aggregates. e generality of their view
is extended by their consistent ﬁ ndings of inferiority biases, that is, the tendency
for members of disliked groups to be evaluated less favorably than the group as
Klar and Giladi’s ﬁ ndings are consistent with those of Alicke et al. (1995) in
showing that the better-than-average eﬀ ect is reduced by comparisons with indi-
viduated entities versus an average peer. Klar and Giladi’s results suggest further
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98 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
that part of the tendency to evaluate oneself more favorably than an average peer
is due to the greater weight people place on any individuated entity versus an ag-
gregate such as an average peer. On the other hand, Alicke et al.’s research show
that compared to other individuated entities, the self has a privileged role in that
the better-than-average eﬀ ect is greater when the self is compared to any other
individuated entity. us, while Klar and Giladi’s model provides a cogent and
general account of individual-group comparisons, an additional factor appears to
be operating when the self is plugged into the comparison.
Klar and Giladi have recently expanded their view in what they call the
LOGE model (local comparisons-general standards model, 2002). According
to this model, the task of estimating, for example, a group member’s politeness
relative to the average student, requires comparing the individual’s politeness to a
local standard, namely, the average level of politeness in the immediate peer group
(for example, students at this university). When people make this comparison,
however, they are unable to avoid applying a more general standard, which might
include all other people. To the extent that the local standard is more favorable
than the general one (i.e., this group is more polite than people in general), supe-
riority biases should emerge such that any person in the group will be evaluated
more favorably than the group average. is occurs because people inadvertently
take into account the superiority of the local standard to the general one, rather
than simply recognizing that the person is an average member of a superior group.
By this same reasoning, evaluations of any individual who belongs to an inferior
group (relative to the general standard) should be less favorable than the group
average. e LOGE model, therefore, provides a useful and general account of
comparisons between speciﬁ c entities and group averages. e model’s limitation
as applied to the better-than-average eﬀ ect is that it does not contain mechanisms
to explain the enhanced favorableness that is generally accorded to the self versus
Research on selective recruitment leaves little doubt that the optimistic bias is
altered by providing people with access to others’ beliefs about their prospects
in life. We question, however, whether careful thinking about one’s behavior is
a necessary, or even a typical component, of self versus other comparisons. e
assumption that people think carefully about speciﬁ c behaviors is less tenable in
the better-than-average eﬀ ect paradigm than in optimistic bias research. In better-
than-average eﬀ ect research, participants typically judge abstract traits rather than
concrete behaviors. Furthermore, the better-than-average eﬀ ect has been obtained
in settings in which participants make hundreds of trait comparisons, and it seems
unlikely that they engage in careful behavior analyses for each comparison.
Alicke et al. (1995; 2001) have suggested that the better-than-average eﬀ ect
is attributable to people applying a better-than-average heuristic. is heuristic
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
entails an automatic tendency to assimilate positively-evaluated social objects
toward ideal trait conceptions, and does not assume that people routinely review
their behaviors to make self-other judgments. e assumption that people apply
a better-than-average heuristic is consistent with Sears’ (1983) notion of a person
positivity bias, and with the general positivity bias that pervades social judgment
(Matlin & Stang, 1978). e degree of assimilation varies for social objects of dif-
ferent value. Family members and friends are accorded a great deal of positivity,
and concrete individuals are accorded more than an average or hypothetical peer.
At the apex of the positivity ladder resides the self.
e extent to which people assimilate toward ideal trait conceptions depends
on the ambiguity of the judgment dimension and on the strength of prior self-
conceptions. As noted previously, people are not indiscriminately self-serving and
tend to avoid easily-refutable claims. Nevertheless, trait comparisons are especially
susceptible to the better-than-average heuristic because trait conceptions can be-
come independent of behavioral exemplars (Klein & Loftus, 1993; Klein, Loftus,
& Burton, 1989; Klein, Loftus, Trafton, & Furman, 1992). Research by Klein and
Loftus shows that people require the same amount of time to recall an instance in
which they displayed a trait regardless of whether they ﬁ rst judge whether that trait
is self-descriptive or simply deﬁ ne the trait. If people accessed speciﬁ c behaviors
to answer trait questions, then judging whether a trait was self-descriptive would
facilitate recalling an instance in which the trait was displayed. Based on numer-
ous failures to ﬁ nd such facilitation eﬀ ects, Klein and Loftus argue that trait and
behavioral information are stored in separate memory systems.
e better-than-average heuristic entails three main assumptions. First, when
people are asked, for example, to judge their “kindness” in relation to an average
peer, the default is to assimilate their self-ratings toward their ideal conceptions of
kindness. ese ideal trait constructs do not necessarily translate into the highest
available scale point. People who are too cooperative, for example, can be taken
for patsies, and extreme honesty can elide into rudeness.
e second assumption is that people make automatic adjustments based on
past self-conceptions. ose who have frequently been criticized for their unhelp-
fulness will still associate with ideal conceptions of helpfulness but will assimilate
less to accommodate reality. e ﬁ nal assumption is that average peers, rather
than being assimilated toward idea standards, are evaluated in relation to oneself.
Because the self typically represents a relatively high scale point, average peers are
assimilated toward oneself, while still being rated less favorably.
Although better-than-average heuristic assumptions have not been tested
directly, there is strong evidence to suggest that behavior recruitment is not a
necessary component of the better-than-average eﬀ ect. One source of support for
this assertion comes from the fact that the better-than-average eﬀ ect emerges even
under extreme cognitive load conditions (Alicke et al., 1995, Study 7).
Another source of support for the nonbehavioral assumption comes from re-
search on what we have called the “better-than-myself” eﬀ ect (Alicke et al., 2001).
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100 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
In our ﬁ rst study on this topic, participants in a pretesting session estimated the
percentage of times they exhibited behaviors relevant to various trait dimensions.
For example, participants were asked to estimate the percentage of times they
were cooperative or uncooperative when the opportunities to display that trait
arose. is behavior percentage methodology was modeled on the act-frequency
approach to personality (Buss & Craik, 1983) which assumes that people deﬁ ne
their traits by estimating the frequency with which they engage in trait-relevant
behaviors. Participants in Study 1 were told to use their percentage estimates to
rate themselves on each corresponding trait dimension.
In the main session conducted approximately six weeks later, participants
received what they believed were the average behavior percentage estimates ob-
tained during the academic quarter. What participants actually received were the
identical estimates they had provided in the pretesting session. us, if participants
estimated that they were cooperative 86% of the time and uncooperative 14% of
the time, they were led to believe that the average student was cooperative 86%
of the time and uncooperative 14% of the time. Participants were asked to use
these estimates to evaluate where they and the average college student fell on the
Results were consistent across the board: Despite looking at the exact behav-
ior estimates they had provided in pretesting, participants evaluated themselves
more favorably than the average college student on almost every dimension.
ese ﬁ ndings were replicated in a second study in which participants received
what they believed were the behavior estimates made by a randomly-selected peer
rather than the average college student. Although the magnitude of the eﬀ ect was
reduced, participants still placed themselves signiﬁ cantly above their peers based
on identical behavior estimates.
A third study assessed whether participants might want to change their be-
havior estimates once they saw the estimates of an average person or a peer. A pos-
sible explanation for the previous studies’ results is that participants believed they
had underestimated the frequency with which they engaged in positive behaviors
after seeing others’ estimates. To test this, we gave participants the opportunity
to change their frequencies after seeing others’ estimates. In general, participants
made relatively few changes. Furthermore, changes that were made did not cor-
relate with comparative ratings.
e better-than-myself paradigm used in these studies has one notable
limitation, namely, that while participants might readily acknowledge that their
behavior frequencies are similar to others’, they could still conclude that their own
trait-relevant behaviors are more exemplary. For example, people might accept that
they and another person are cooperative 85% of the time but believe that their
own cooperative behaviors are more cooperative than someone else’s. We used a
diﬀ erent methodology to circumvent this problem in a fourth study. is time, we
asked participants to list every behavior they could think of that reﬂ ected where
they stood on one of four trait dimensions (kind-unkind, intelligent-unintelligent,
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
honest-dishonest, and creative-uncreative ). After listing the relevant behaviors,
participants received a list made by another student and then compared themselves
to the student on the trait dimension. On average, the lists participants received
from others should have been just as positive as the ones they produced themselves.
Nevertheless, with a peer’s trait-relevant behaviors in front of them, they continued
to evaluate themselves more favorably than the peer. We believe that this study
provides reasonably strong evidence that diﬀ erences in behavior recruitment are
not a necessary component of the better-than-average eﬀ ect.
THE MOTIVATION-NONMOTIVATION BOGEY
Selective recruitment, focalism, and egocentrism have all been shown to moder-
ate the better-than-average eﬀ ect. ese judgment features have been proposed
as alternatives to self-enhancement assumptions (Chambers & Windshitl, 2004).
e credibility of the nonmotivational position would be heightened if it could
be shown that these factors, either in isolation or combination, eliminate the
better-than-average eﬀ ect. But as a general rule, variations in these judgment facets
alter, but do not eliminate, the better-than-average eﬀ ect. For example, for focal-
ism to provide a suﬃ cient explanation of the better-than-average eﬀ ect, people
must evaluate average peers more favorably than themselves when the average
peer is the focal object and the self is this referent. is is not what happens. In
studies on focalism, reversing the position of self and average attenuates but does
not eliminate the eﬀ ect. e same is true for eﬀ ects attributable to egocentrism
or selective recruitment. us, the speciﬁ c information people focus on, and the
kinds of comparisons they make, while important moderators of the better-than-
average eﬀ ect, do not suﬃ ce to explain it.
is failure of these various mechanisms to account completely for the better-
than-average eﬀ ect does not, of course, establish the role of self-enhancement. But
various other ﬁ ndings do suggest a role for self-enhancement. e ﬁ nding in our
early study (Alicke, 1985) that the better-than-average eﬀ ect increases with posi-
tive controllable traits and decreases with negative uncontrollable traits, provides
one source of support for the self-enhancement motive. is result shows that
people are most self-aggrandizing when they feel responsible for their positive
characteristics, and least self-aggrandizing when they believe that fate accounts for
their negative characteristics.
at the tendency to evaluate oneself more favorably than others increases
with the desirability of the judgment dimensions provides even more basic support
for the self-enhancement motive (Weinstein, 1980; Hayes & Dunning, 1996) .
Another aspect of the better-than-average eﬀ ect that is diﬃ cult to account for
without reference to self-enhancement is the consistent ﬁ nding that the eﬀ ect is
stronger on ambiguous or subjectively-deﬁ ned dimensions (Allison, Messick, &
Goethals, 1989; Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989). Apparently, people
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102 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
are most self-serving when they have the latitude to construe comparisons in a
manner that emphasizes their superiority.
Egocentrism and selective recruitment, the two most prominent and general
nonmotivational explanations of the better-than-average eﬀ ect, assume that the ef-
fect involves the type of behaviors or comparison targets people think about, or the
relative emphasis they place on their own actions and characteristics. Research on
the better-than-myself eﬀ ect, however, shows that the tendency to evaluate oneself
more favorably than others perseveres even when behavioral evidence is equated
for self and other. Furthermore, the tendencies to emphasize one’s own actions and
characteristics, and to recruit selectively information that casts oneself in the most
favorable light, are readily interpretable as serving the need to self-enhance.
e idea that people automatically identify with ideal trait conceptions is
seemingly contradicted by Kruger’s ﬁ ndings of a worse-than-average eﬀ ect and
Klar and Giladi’s ﬁ ndings of inferiority biases. is apparent discrepancy can be
readily resolved, however, by expanding the better-than-average heuristic view to
include the possibility for contrast as well as assimilation eﬀ ects. Contrast eﬀ ects
are likely to occur when the object of judgment is obviously unfavorable, such
as a behavioral weakness or a disliked individual. Kruger, for example, obtained
his worse-than-average eﬀ ects with behaviors such as juggling and playing chess–
behaviors for which the majority of people readily recognize their shortcomings.
Instead of automatic assimilation to ideal trait conceptions, we assume that people
automatically contrast themselves from the ideal under such circumstances.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
People like to think favorably of themselves, and for good reason. Positive self-views
promote harmonious personal relationships and successful goal-striving. ose who
feel good about themselves are less prone to negative moods and depression (Taylor
et al., 2003). e ways in which people strive to maintain favorable self-images are
legion, including taking credit for positive outcomes and denying responsibility
for negative ones (Bradley, 1978; Zuckerman, 1979), selectively recalling favorable
information about themselves (Sedikides & Gregg, 2003), exaggerating the ability
of people who outperform them and who they outperform (Alicke et al., 1997),
searching selectively for information that conﬁ rms a positive self-image, evaluat-
ing others in a way that reﬂ ects favorably on one’s own performance (Dunning
& Cohen, 1992), and aﬃ rming threatened aspects of self (Steele, 1978). Each of
these behavior tendencies, either strategically or inadvertently, serves to promote
e better-than-average eﬀ ect is diﬃ cult to locate in this “zoo” (Tesser,
2000) of self-enhancement mechanisms. For one thing, it is unclear whether
the better-than-average eﬀ ect reﬂ ects an already favorable self-image, or is con-
structed spontaneously. In other words, the better-than-average eﬀ ect could be
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5: THE BETTER-THAN-AVERAGE EFFECT
a consequence of the aforementioned self-enhancement mechanisms, or it could
be a distinct mechanism in it own right. Although numerous better-than- average
eﬀ ect studies have been conducted, we still do not know precisely what kind of
eﬀ ect it is. Does the better-than-average eﬀ ect, for example, primarily reﬂ ect a
tendency to contrast oneself upward from the average, to contrast the average
downward from the self, or as the better-than-average heuristic implies, upward
assimilation of both self and average toward an ideal trait concept, with greater
assimilation for the self. To answer this basic question requires a design in which
diﬀ erent groups of participants make either absolute self-judgments or absolute
average-peer judgments, followed by comparative self versus average judgments.
is design would make it possible to analyze precisely assimilation and/or contrast
eﬀ ects in self versus average peer ratings.
e better-than-average eﬀ ect would be less important if it were due solely
to the vague and amorphous nature of comparisons with an “average peer.” But
numerous studies have shown that people also evaluate themselves more favor-
ably than speciﬁ c peers, although the eﬀ ect is attenuated in such comparisons. An
interesting oﬀ shoot of better-than-average eﬀ ect research concerns the nature of
the diﬀ erence between comparisons with speciﬁ c and average peers. One possible
diﬀ erence is that people confer “personhood” on real human beings and evaluate
them more favorably than statistical entities on this basis (Sears, 1983). A related
possibility is that people are more modest in comparisons with real individuals
and therefore inhibit self-serving tendencies.
One important direction for future research is, as noted above, to compare
conditions in which people make comparative self versus average peer ratings to
those in which they rate self and average individually. is design would answer a
fundamental question regarding the better-than-average eﬀ ect, namely, whether
self or average ratings are altered when made comparatively, and if so, in which
direction this alteration occurs. Most researchers, including us, assume that the
self is an anchor point against which average peer ratings are referred, but this
assumption has not been tested directly in previous research. If the self-anchoring
assumption is correct, then self-ratings should not change when they are made indi-
vidually versus when they are made in comparison to the average peer. A downward
contrast of the average peer from the self would indicate that the eﬀ ect involves
downplaying others’ characteristics relative to one’s own. A diﬀ erent possibility
is that people anchor on the average peer, and contrast the self upward from that
point, suggesting self-inﬂ ation relative to the average standard. A third possibility,
one that the better-than-average heuristic predicts, is that self ratings represent a
stable (and high) anchor based on immediate associations with an ideal standard,
and that comparisons with the high self standard lead to upward assimilation of
the average peer, but an assimilation that falls short of the self.
Another direction for future research is to introduce manipulations designed
to alter the better-than-average eﬀ ect. An obvious possibility is to introduce threats
to one’s perceived standing on a trait dimension. Self-enhancement perspectives
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104 THE SELF IN SOCIAL JUDGMENT
predict that the better-than-average eﬀ ect should be increased when people con-
front a threat to an important aspect of their identities. Again, this fundamental
assumption has yet to be tested explicitly.
As noted at the outset, the better-than-average eﬀ ect is a type of social
comparison in which people are asked to evaluate themselves with reference to a
normative standard, namely, an average peer or the midpoint of a distribution.
Research on this topic has shown consistently that people place themselves above
this standard, and also above speciﬁ c peers. e better-than-average eﬀ ect tells us
that people evaluate themselves more favorably than others, and this eﬀ ect is not
due solely to the weight they place on their own characteristics in comparative
judgments, their tendencies to focus on themselves as the judgment object, or
on the tendency to recruit favorable information about themselves. In fact, one
can reasonably argue that both egocentrism and selective recruitment serve self-
enhancement needs. In other words, thinking egocentrically about one’s own posi-
tive qualities, or selecting downward comparison targets, may represent motivated
propensities to reach favorable conclusions about one’s standing relative to others.
us, various ﬁ ndings suggest that the better-than-average eﬀ ect is due, at least
in part, to a desire to view oneself in a favorable light relative to one’s peers. e
task in future investigations is to evaluate which kinds of self-threats inﬂ uence self
versus average judgments, and to assess whether such alterations entail changes in
self ratings, average ratings, or both.
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